Surprising outcasts – Joseph and the Canaanite woman

Revd Sonia Hicks is a British Methodist minister who was elected to serve as President of the Methodist Conference from June 2021 to June 2022 – the first Black woman to hold this position.

TODAY, as part of my training as a Methodist local preacher, I shared the following reflection at a Black majority church in inner city Liverpool.

The inspiration came from two of the recommended readings for this Sunday: Genesis 45: 1-15, in which Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, and Matthew 15:21-28, the dialogue between Jesus and a Canaanite woman. My interpretation of Joseph’s story was informed by the work of Peterson Toscano, and of the Canaanite woman’s story by the work of Liz Edman.

In 2021, a Black woman became the President of the Methodist Church In Britain for the first time. In her presidential address at Conference, Revd Sonia Hicks told the story of her Aunt Lize, a life-long Methodist who came from Jamaica to the UK. On her first Sunday in this country, Lize attended the local Methodist church but, although she brought her membership ticket, the minister turned her away. It was years before Sonia’s family returned to the Methodist Church In Britain. It was a blessing to us all that they did, so Revd Sonia could become a Methodist minister and eventually, the President.

We may now be more alert to racial justice, and it’s good to give thanks for that, but we can’t be complacent. Although some things have improved, there are still ways in which the Church is less inclusive than God calls us to be. We need to maintain the open welcome to all that God requires of us constantly.

Our readings today explore the voices of the marginalised or excluded – Joseph, whose brothers allow him to be sold into slavery, and pretend he was dead, and the Canaanite woman who challenges Jesus about the membership of God’s chosen people – and the outcome of both encounters is surprising.

Joseph is one of the best known characters in the Hebrew Bible, thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s musical about him and his ‘Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’.

A performance of Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat

We learn, earlier in the Book of Genesis, that Joseph is the youngest of Jacob’s 12 children. Jacob loves Joseph more than any other of his sons, and gives him a gift of a robe, which the King James Version of the Bible calls ‘a coat of many colours’. When they saw this, Genesis tells us that Joseph’s brothers ‘hated him and could not speak a kind word to him’ [Genesis 37:4].

Jealous of the attention Jacob gives Joseph, they plot to kill him, then pretend he is dead and sell him into slavery in Egypt, where he ends up in prison. After correctly interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, Joseph becomes the equivalent of Pharaoh’s ‘prime minister’, and saves the country from a famine. Jacob’s family travels to Egypt to escape the famine and, because of Joseph, they are allowed to settle there.

What we don’t usually hear in Joseph’s story is that the ‘coat of many colours’ may be a clue to why his brothers hated him. The Hebrew phrase for the robe which Jacob gives to Joseph only appears in one other place in the Hebrew Bible. In the second book of Samuel [2 Sam 13:18], the same Hebrew phrase is used to describe the dress worn by Tamar, daughter of King David. It is described as ‘the kind of garment the virgin daughters of the king wore’. So the most literal reading of Joseph’s robe is that it was a ‘princess dress’. So perhaps Joseph’s brothers hated him because he wasn’t like them, because he didn’t conform to what they thought a man should be – an effeminate dreamer whom their father seemed to love more than them, threatening their place in the family. Joseph also had dreams that they would bow to him as if he were royalty, which didn’t help!

Joseph recognized by his brothers (1863) by Léon Pierre Urbain Bourgeois

The reading we heard today is the moment when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers in Egypt, who don’t recognise him many years after they cast him out of the family. He has just heard them reflecting on the wrong they have done to him. He tells them not to fear, because what they had meant for evil, God had meant for good. Then he commands them to go and bring their father and his entire household to Egypt to protect them from famine. This is where his dreams of having power over his family come true.

Joseph could have taken revenge on his brothers. He had the power to retaliate. He could have cast out the ones who had cast him out. Instead reconciliation begins with him – the one who was outcast teaches them to be better, not bitter. Joseph sees God’s vision for them, to preserve their lives, and the lives of their descendants, as God’s chosen people. Jacob’s 12 children become the leaders of the 12 tribes of Israel.

The One with the Crumby Dog by Ally Barrett, based on the story of the Canaanite woman

It’s this understanding of who belongs to God’s chosen people that the Canaanite woman challenges in her conversation with Jesus.

Jesus was a Jew, a member of a people who have a special covenant with God that governs all their relationships – including who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out’.

Canaanites were the people who lived in the ‘promised land’ when the  Israelites arrived, like the native people who lived in lands around the world colonised by Europeans in more recent times. The Israelites were the descendants of Jacob’s 12 children. In the time of Jesus, this meant the Canaanite woman was an ‘outsider’. The book of Deuteronomy identifies Canaanites as an enemy of Israel (7:1). For that reason, and because of her gender, observers of Jewish law would have seen her as ‘unclean’.

The Canaanite woman, on the margins of society, is so desperate that she does anything to get to Jesus. She approaches Jesus and the disciples shouting, then kneels in front of him, blocking his way. The disciples, and even Jesus himself, seem to regard her as a nuisance. Jesus doesn’t answer. His disciples urge him to send her away. Yet she addresses Jesus like a disciple, calling him ‘Lord’ three times.

Jesus dismisses her, in a way that may have been typical of Jewish leaders at that time. He says he has come ‘only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’.

In one of the more difficult sayings that Jesus is reported to have said in the Gospels, he responds to the Canaanite woman, who asks him to heal her daughter, by comparing them to dogs. He implies that helping her would be unfair to God’s chosen people: ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She persists: ‘yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table’.

Scripture shows that Jesus in his humanity was not perfect – at times we see Jesus being short-tempered with his disciples. This story is perhaps the clearest in the Gospels where Jesus demonstrates his full humanity, first by being rude to this woman, and second because he changes his mind – his eyes are opened and his actions change with his newfound understanding.

Immediately before this Gospel passage we hear Jesus saying that what comes out of a person is what makes them unclean, so maybe he’s trying to prove his point!

He uses the image of bread to reinforce that this woman and her daughter are outcasts – bread that he has just said was neither clean or unclean has now become so precious and sacred that it is limited to only a few, and he is deciding who will get it!

Jesus leans harder into his divinity to make a better response to this woman, but first he has to dive more deeply into his humanity – he needs to learn something – he has to change. The woman agrees with him that she is an ‘outcast’, but forces him to acknowledge that, no, her daughter is not a dog, she is a human being, and so is he.

Using his own words against him, the Canaanite woman forces Jesus to prove that he is not perfect, not set apart in the way he himself criticizes in other religious leaders.

Perhaps her challenge reminds Jesus of God’s promise to Abraham, grandfather of Jacob, whose children led the twelve tribes of Israel, that ‘through you, all the nations of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3).

If impure thoughts lead to impure words, then words can also reveal purity of heart – and so the woman receives God’s inclusive blessing. Jesus recognises her courage and faith motivated by the love of her child. He realises that God’s healing love includes her. He understands the wideness of God’s mercy – something that would have been uncomfortable to Jewish people at that time, since it challenged their belief that they were an exclusive, chosen people.

If we draw a parallel between this very human Jesus and his very human body – the church – this story highlights the importance of human experience in church teaching. It offers us a beautiful model of someone learning, growing in their faith, getting it wrong and then getting it right. How much more powerful it is that the person doing the learning and growing is Jesus himself, and the teacher in this story is the person he has just marginalized!

This is a real Jesus who engages with us, and is affected by us, who understands our failings and calls us to be better. This is a God who prompts us to ask questions, stretch our minds and hearts, and grow in ways that are sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes lovely, and always loving.

The big challenge Jesus gives us all is to understand that loving like him is not about conforming our outward behaviour and public views to what we think makes a virtuous life. Loving like Jesus means allowing our whole inner being to be transformed, so our transformed inner attitudes can flow into our outer actions. We learn how to love the person in front of us, with the same love with which God loves us – unconditionally – whatever their views, background, status, or anything else that might be different from us. As we grow the wisdom to know how to do this, how to channel God’s love to them, we in turn may receive God’s love from them in surprising ways.

When you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher wall, by Karen Carnabucci

In these stories, and countless others, in scripture and throughout history, we see how God, in Jesus, sees and hears people who are marginalised or excluded from society, and responds with compassion, love and mercy. Jesuit priest Gregory Boyle who, works with people damaged by gang culture, says ‘arguments don’t change minds; stories do’. Jesus understood this; he told and shared stories. It’s one way in which God teaches us compassion and courage. Boyle also says: ‘when we have more than we need, instead of constructing a higher wall, we build a longer table’. God’s table is set for each and every one of us – there is no ‘them’ – so let’s make sure everyone gets an invitation!

Joseph, the Canaanite woman, and Jesus challenge our small notions of who God loves. We are invited to have transformed, enlarged hearts, both to receive God’s love from other people, and to channel it to them – speaking up to ensure all are included.

As God’s people, we have a God-given responsibility to collaborate with God’s inclusive compassion, making this blessing real for each and every one of us. Being slower to judge and condemn and quicker to listen is a good place to start. John Wesley wrote:

‘I have often repented of judging too severely, but very seldom of being too merciful.’

John Wesley (letter to Robert Brackenbury, 20 October 1787)

Food for thought:

  1. When have you felt on the edge of a group. What was it like? Did someone do something to make you feel more included?
  2. When have you looked down on others?
  3. When have you felt compelled to speak up, no matter what the consequences?
  4. What different or marginalised voices could we be better at hearing?
  5. How could our church be more welcoming to groups that are excluded?

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1 comment

  1. What a wonderful reflection! I feel grateful I could be part of your inspiration for this post. BTW there is a NEW graphic story of Joseph and the Princess dress based on one of J Mase III’s poems. Josephine: A Trans Story of Biblical Proportions.
    It is amazing!!

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